Based on a literary relic of the early 20th century, Tarzan movies keep coming back.
January marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of Tarzan of the Apes, the first of many Tarzan movies that would be produced over the next century.
Tarzan. The name brings up images of a loincloth-adorned, super-cut athlete, swinging through the jungle on conveniently placed vines. With his mate, the formerly civilized Jane, and his chimpanzee friend Cheeta by his side, Tarzan communicates with all the animals in the jungle to assist him in overpowering villains.
“Me Tarzan. You Jane.” Those four words with which many Americans have been familiar over the decades have never been spoken in any of the Tarzan movies. In fact, in the original books, Tarzan had a far stronger grasp of the language, albeit with a French accent.
It was author Edgar Rice Burroughs who created the character in 1912 in All-Story Magazine and then in book form as Tarzan of the Apes. It told the story of John Clayton III, the heir to the Greystoke fortune whose parents were marooned and died in the jungle when he was just an infant, who was raised by apes and became the master of the jungle in Africa over apes and tribes alike.
The novel was an enormous hit and would be followed by two dozen more into the 1940s, exploiting early 20th-century audiences’ tastes for Theodore Roosevelt’s “strenuous life,” a kind of return to nature and the wild in the face of growing industrialization. Among Burroughs’ contemporaries whose works gained great popularity as a result of this taste were Jack London, most famous for The Call of the Wild, and Rudyard Kipling, for his Jungle Stories featuring young Mowgli, raised by wolves rather than apes.
The major issue with Tarzan, unfortunately, is the inherently racist concept and approach of the story of a white man joining the wild to be a hero and the treatment of the native Africans as “savages.” Tarzan movies of recent decades have attempted to either tiptoe around that issue or ignore it completely, but earlier Tarzan movies often, lamentably, embraced it.
Here are some highlights and lowlights of the history of Tarzan in the movies.
1. Tarzan of the Apes (Scott Sidney, 1918)
The very first film version of Burroughs’ work starred Elmo Lincoln and was an adaptation of the first half of the novel (the second half would be covered in the now-lost The Romance of Tarzan), covering Tarzan’s origins. It would be the most faithful version of the novel for the next 66 years.
2. Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)
These first two MGM versions cemented the idea of Tarzan, introducing the world to Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan and unabashedly embracing the inherent racism of a white man as savior of Africa. Both films feature Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, and if there’s one progressive bone in these films’ bodies, it’s O’Sullivan’s performance as a proactive woman whose sexual awakening is glaringly apparent. It’s clear she’s not interested in Tarzan’s mind. In fact, Tarzan and His Mate even features a sustained nude swimming sequence, one of the last major studio films to feature nudity before the Production Code put the kibosh on that later in 1934. Tarzan would be dressed far more conservatively in the 10 sequels that followed until Weismuller hung up his loincloth for good in 1948. Lex Barker and Gordon Scott would follow during the next decade as Tarzan movies descended into B-movie budgets.
3. Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (John Guillermin, 1959)
The most notable of Gordon Scott’s Tarzan movies, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, featured a new producer named Sy Weintrab, who injected more money into the series, rid the films of Jane, and made Tarzan a lone adventurer who could now suddenly speak excellent English. The film is perhaps most interesting because it also features Sean Connery as one of the villains in a pre–James Bond role. Now in widescreen color, Weintraub injected new life into the franchise well into the late ’60s with another dozen movies and even a TV series starring Ron Ely.
4. Tarzan the Ape Man (John Derek, 1981)
The less said about this version, the better. After the 1970s were Tarzan-free, this was the first notable Tarzan release for some time. Not only is it the worst Tarzan movie ever made (and this is with a considerably low bar), but it’s considered one of the worst movies of any kind ever made. Filmed primarily as an exploitation movie intended to feature Bo Derek in various forms of undress, with little interest in Tarzan, the creepiness factor of the film is somehow further exacerbated by the fact that it’s her much-older husband John as director doing the exploiting. Even as a curiosity item, it’s a flop.
5. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (Hugh Hudson, 1984)
Whether this was a reaction to the terrible Derek version or not, this was the first modern attempt to rescue Tarzan from the B-movie/television hell in which he had resided for decades. Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson creates a beautiful-looking widescreen canvas to tell the full story of John Clayton’s origins in the jungle. Arguably the best scenes are those featuring the young Tarzan (who’s never named that in the film) interacting with the apes, portrayed by humans assisted by legendary makeup genius Rick Baker. While Hudson looks at the experience of Clayton through the prism of English colonialism, there are still racist elements in the film in the portrayal of the native Africans as unthinking, unspeaking savages.
6. Tarzan (Kevin Lima/Chris Buck, 1999)
Disney’s inevitable animated feature was by far the most financially successful of any of the Tarzan movies, bringing in over $400 million at the box office, although the selection of Phil Collins to compose an animated feature set in the jungles of Africa always seemed a little peculiar, and Disney’s decision to face the racism by omitting any Black people in a movie set in Africa has always seemed the coward’s way out.
7. The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, 2016)
The most recent version starring Alexander Skarsgård attempts to wipe away the white supremacy issues of the original story by featuring Samuel L. Jackson as hero George Washington Williams, who calls a civilized John Clayton back to the jungle for help. Reviews were mixed, but with a box office take of over $400 million, it proves the franchise, even after 100 years, still attracts audiences.
Are they attracted, like viewers years ago, to the idea of returning to the wild? Or are they just attracted to Alexander Skarsgård’s abs? Time will tell. The future of Tarzan clearly requires a more modern, less racist perspective. Perhaps Harry Potter veteran David Yates’ Tarzan movie will prove to be a template for future adaptations.